As you’ve no doubt heard, good quality sleep is vital for both healing and ongoing health.
While we’re sleeping our body is busy restocking our supply of hormones, processing significant toxins, repairing damaged tissue, generating vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminating the effects of stress, and processing heavy emotions.
Unfortunately we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to sleep maintenance to fullblown insomnia.
Sleeping soundly also often increases our motivation to make healthier lifestyle changes, it is always easier to exercise more and eat a healthier diet when we’re well rested.
In order to fall asleep we rely on our pineal gland (an ant-sized gland the shape of a pinecone in the centre of our brain) to secrete melatonin. This occurs in sync with our circadian rhythm. Melatonin suppresses the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm the brain (partly by countering the stress hormone cortisol from our adrenal glands).
As we become drowsier, the brain slowly turns off our muscles, so we don’t move around too much and try to act out our dreams or disrupt the body’s internal revitalisation work. It’s because of this that it’s so hard to move your limbs or shout out in response to a nightmare.
Melatonin needs to be rising steadily and cortisol needs to be at it’s lowest, at bedtime, for ideal sleep. The trouble is the pineal gland secretes melatonin largely in response to darkness and our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise. Too much noise, stress and bright light from computers, video games, TV (especially the news and reality TV shows that cause us to release adrenaline) our evening activity choices can get in the way of these natural pro-sleep chemical shifts. These devices mostly display full-spectrum light which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or not.
In order for the pineal gland to produce melatonin, it needs enough serotonin, and to get enough serotonin we need a good supply of B vitamins to convert the amino acid tryptophan.
Eating a large meal and trying to digest a heavy meal, later in the evening, can also prevent or interrupt sleep, especially if it contains ingredients that impact on sleep.
So there are a lot of factors that can affect our sleep.
Tips for better Sleep Hygiene
- Choose more calming, quieter evening activities that resonate with you and help you to relax, both mentally and physically (e.g. reading a book, taking a bath, going for a light stroll outdoors, playing with a pet, folding laundry).
- Turn off all bright lights and blue-light devices, particularly computers and phones for at least 1-2 hours before bedtime.
- Try to do any stressful activities such as budgeting, doing your accounts, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations earlier in the evening. Sometimes we have a lot going on in our lives, with upcoming events, exams or meetings that we need to plan for and think about. Set aside time earlier in the evening to make a to-do list and address these then, so that by nedtime your mind is less likely to be full of chatter.
- Heavy duty exercise should be earlier in the day and a gentle stroll around the block straight after dinner is beneficial to sleep. Avoid heavy workout sessions later in the day though.
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm. This includes; tea (even green tea), coffee, any caffeinated soft drinks, energy drinks (energy drinks and caffeinated soft drinks should be avoided at any time of the day if you suffer from sleep issues or anxiety) chocolate and mate.
- Eat earlier in the evening and avoid a heavy meal for dinner.
- Avoid alcohol, it may seem to help you sleep, but all it’s doing is bypassing the necessary REM sleep cycle and sends you into a deep (almost comatosed) sleep which you then wake up from, often in a heightened alert state, a few hours later. It also makes sleep apnoea and snoring worse. Sugar can have a similar, albeit milder, effect.
- Make it quiet but not too quiet. If noise is an issue in your bedroom (too little OR too much), I often recommend soft foam ear plugs and/or the white noise of a fan or app on the phone (that you can download so you can turn the phone onto aeroplane mode).
- Keep the temperature of the room temperate. Rooms which are too hot or too cold tend to wake us up. In addition to waking us up to mess with the bedding, temperature extremes naturally increase our stress hormones which promotes wakefulness.
- Block out any light with block out curtains or blinds.
- Avoid napping later in the day.
- Have a relaxing ritual at night. Change into PJ’s, turn off overhead lights and have lamps on only, make a herbal tea (e.g. lavender, chamomile, valerian, passionflower) and a hot bath (but not too hot) with Epsom salts and essential oils (if you don’t react to them) may also work well.
- Go to bed at around the same time every evening, our body’s love routine!
- If you aren’t asleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up, go into another room and try reading a book (paper version is better than a device) until you start to feel sleepy again.
- If you wake through the night, and can’t get back to sleep within 20 – 30 minutes, sit up and read (or go to another room if needed) until you start to feel sleepy again.
- If your mind starts churning over the to-do list, have a notepad by the bed and briefly jot down whatever is bothering you. You then don’t need to try and remember it for the next day.
- Keep your bed for sleeping, reading a book and sex only.
- Get out into bright sunlight or artificial light first thing in the morning to increase serotonin production which provides the building blocks for melatonin production late in the day. Bright light (particularly sunlight) also boosts the production of cortisol and cortisol should be at it’s highest first thing in the morning. For optimal serotonin and cortisol production get outside and look up towards the sun (just off to the side, noit directly at the sun of course!), without any sunglasses (or any other type of glasses) and no contact lenses either. 20 minutes with the sun on the face is ideal, but 2 minutes is better than nothing.
Herbs and supplements can also help, but it’s always best to speak to a practitioner before self medicating, so call me and we can discuss your personal situation.